An Outfit’s Worth of History: Presenting My Mill Girl Wardrobe

On the last Sunday in January, I put on a presentation in the crowded exhibit gallery of the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum*. The talked was titled “The 1920s Style of Vermont’s Mill Girls,” and was part history lecture, part show-and-tell. In it, I used reproduction garments I had made to teach the audience about a historical moment in early 20th-century Vermont.

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As I mentioned in a recent post, this was a project which had come out of a conversation a few months previously, and for which I researched and sewed an outfit of reproduction garments. My goal was to explore two topics: first, how the type outfit I had recreated was practical clothing for workers in a textile mill; and second, to illustrate how even working-class women participated in broader style trends. These two themes would allow me to pass on some of the practical realities of what it was like to live and work 100 years ago, but also to give the audience a sense of the larger cultural forces at play in 1920, and how they effected the material lives of people at all levels of society. To borrow a phrase from striking textile mill workers from Lawrence, Mass., in 1912, I would talk about both bread AND roses.

In total I made eight different garments for this outfit and I found that each garment encompassed part of the story that I wanted to tell. To a small degree, I chose to reproduce certain garments or styles because they helped me to build a more comprehensive narrative, but really it was simply that a complete outfit equaled a complete story. I began the presentation fully dressed and over the course of 45 minutes, I removed layers of my outfit one at a time and explained the significance of each newly revealed garment. Below is a list of each garment along with the story it told.

 

Layer One: Protective Garments

Queen City Cotton Apron

This layer of clothing was based directly off of images of women working in the Queen City Cotton Mill, and supported by oral histories of workers from the Champlain Mill, which discussed the wearing of protective clothing.

The work apron – this simple apron was the one part of the outfit which was based purely on images of textile workers. It featured large pockets, seemingly for the carrying of maintenance tools, and was black to keep machine grease from showing. This garment let me talk about working conditions in a mill’s spinning or weaving room. The machinery which packed these industrial spaces was loud and could also be dirty and dangerous. Weavers at this time often oversaw as many as eight looms, and their work consisted of keeping this automated power machinery running smoothly.

The coverall apron – beneath their work aprons, the women of the Queen City Cotton Mill (as well as women depicted in many other early 20th-century industrial contexts) wore smock-like garments described in the pages of the Sears & Roebuck’s catalog as coverall aprons. As the name implies, this garment was designed to cover the wearer and protect the rest of her clothing from wear and tear. Though advertised to housewives as practical clothing to be worn while doing chores around the house, it was clearly also a logical choice for working women. These aprons were loose, comfortable clothing which kept whatever was worn beneath free from grime.

The particular apron which I chose to reconstruct (and which I talk more about in another post) had one other interesting aspect: the style was described in a contemporary dressmaking text as a “kimono apron.” These days that’s dressmaker’s lingo for a garment where the sleeve and body are cut as one piece, but the choice of the word kimono to describe that style is an interesting one – garments have been made in this way for millennium, so naming it, in the 1920s, after a Japanese garment had more to do with the style trend of “Japanism” than with the way kimonos are constructed. For mill workers, the coverall apron was the epitome of practicality, but this particular style of apron also spoke to what was going on in the broader world of fashion.

 

Layer Two: Separates

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The office staff of the Queen City Cotton Mill.

Underneath the protective out layer, my outfit consisted of the types of garments which were wore by women in slightly cleaner jobs around the mill, such as working to inspect the cloth for defects after weaving, or doing administrative work in the mill office. Probably, some of the female weavers and spinning room staff also wore garments like these under their coverall aprons, or changed out of their protective aprons and into clothes like these after their work days.

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The cloth room staff from the Queen City Cotton Mill, who were responsible for inspection the mill’s textiles for defects.

The shirtwaist – One of the themes I wanted to draw out with this layer was the impact that World War One was still having on fashion in 1920. There were plenty of choices of “shirtwaist” styles I could have gone with, but I chose to go with a sailor-style collar, in order to highlight the impact of military dress on women’s fashions.

The skirt – This garment’s waistband detail was also meant to evoke the military styles that had prevailed during the Great War (if I’d had time, I might have added pockets, which would have furthered this look). The skirt’s short length let me talk about the idea of raised hemlines and the related wartime saving in textiles. This garment was also the only part of this outfit not made of cotton. Made rather of worsted wool, it allowed me to bring up the types of textiles produced by the Champlain Mill – the building in which my presentation was taking place – which at that time produced piece dyed worsteds, among other things.

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Perhaps the most significant aspect of this layer, however, was its simplicity. These garments look (and, for the most part, are) comfortable, practical, and easy to wear. The trend toward simple, relaxed clothing which began during the war continued into the twenties, where it illustrated the urge to let loose  that reigned in the Roaring 20s. I think that the simplicity of this layer also felt deeply relatable to my audience during the presentation. Everyone in the room was comfortable with the idea of an outfit made up of what was essentially a shirt and a bottom – a skirt in this case, but it wasn’t impossible to envision pants in its place. One woman even interrupted to tell me that she’d happily wear “a skirt like that” today. However, the apparent simplicity of the outfit was quickly dispelled as I went on to show additional layers of my wardrobe:

 

Layer Three: Frilly Under Things

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This intermediate layer interfaced between outer garments and those which unquestionably fell into the category of underwear. In that capacity, they both maintained a level of modesty and helped to prevent outer garments (which were likely washed only where necessary) from sitting next to the skin. Just as the aprons protected the garments beneath them from the filth of the mill, so to this layer kept prevented sweat from reaching those nicer, less-frequently laundered outer layers.

 

The corset cover – A modern viewer might well choose to use the word camisole for this garment, but the period term corset cover handily describe’s this garment’s intended use. First, it tells us that, in 1920, plenty of women still wore corsets – more on that shortly. Additionally, it highlights that a corset needed some kind over cover to prevent it’s lines – or the lines of the female form beneath it – from being too readily visible to the outside world. My cotton batiste shirtwaist, for example, was a little too shear to be worn without some sort of additional layer underneath.

The petticoat – As the corset cover is to the upper body, so the petticoat is below the waist – it adds one more layer of fabric between the distinct lines of corset bones and the outer surface of the skirt (we wouldn’t, after all, want anyone to have a reason to think about a lady’s underwear). Traditionally, petticoats can also add volume to a silhouette. In this case, the slender styles coming into vogue around 1920 meant that my petticoat was relatively narrow.

 

Layer Four: Undergarments

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As someone who likes to understand how things work, the internal structure on which an outfit is built always holds a special fascination for me. In the case of this project, which was, by my standards, a bit of a rush, I at first contemplated cutting some corners with the undergarments. After all, I could have simply stopped undressing at the lacy underthings layer and no one would have been any the wiser (and a few people might have been a tad less scandalized) but honestly, where’s the fun in that? In the end, I’m very glad I constructed, and showed off, this layer, since underwear can be a particularly effective tool for thinking about physicality, comfort, and body standards in any given era.

The corset – I hadn’t originally thought I’d need to make a corset for this outfit– the 20’s was when women had started wearing bras, right? This, I figured, would save me time. But further research on the subject made me re-think my assumptions about the fashions of 1920. It is always best to be a little conservative when building a wardrobe for a historical character of a lower socio-economic class, and while corsets may have begin dropping out of favor in the 1920s, they were still a feature of most women’s wardrobes in the 1910s. If the mill worker I was portraying was my own age (28), then she would have been wearing adult women’s fashions for at least a decade, meaning she was probably used to wearing a corset as part of her daily attire.

Additionally, it was pretty clear to me that my own physic would work better in the styles of 1920 with a little help from some shapewear. My body does not conform to the slender, boy-like ideal that was just coming to the fore at this time. To achieve an approximation of that look, I, like many women then and now, would need to choose garments that helped my cause. This long and low style of corset does nothing to support the bust except to hold the layer beneath it secure around my rib cage (which did, indeed, have a bra-like effect). This was intentional in an era when a small, flat bust was considered the ideal. At the same time, it smooths waist and hips, eliminating any unsightly bulges and downplaying curves.

The union suit – There were lots of different choices for the garment that would make up the inner-most layer of this outfit – one piece or two? Batiste, or jersey? Sleek and practical or covered in lace?  This was the layer that would sit next to my skill and which I would sweat into. For women working in textile mills, in needed to be comfortable and practical. I decided I would make a cotton jersey union suit – essentially, one-piece underwear with a split crotch, so that the wearer can go to the bathroom without getting fully undressed. For the sake of the narrative I was telling, I liked the choice of the union suit because it allowed me to talk about the popularity of female athleticism in the early 20th century. This type of comfortable, stretchy underwear was perfect for a new generation of active women, engaged in sport. That same focus on exercise also had a lot to do with the fashionable fit and slender silhouette of the decade, and so the union suit allowed me once again to draw connections between the practical clothing of mill workers and the broader style trends of the era.

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Showing the audience the inner-most layer of my wardrobe.

During my talk, I undressed as far as my corset, union suit, and stockings, because I felt it was important that the audience understand the foundation of the outfit, and because I still felt reasonably “dressed” by 21st-century standards in that layer (I did wear a very minimal modern bra under the union suit to minimize having my nipples show through the union suit, which seemed a bridge too far by contemporary standards of dress, and would have made both me and the audience uncomfortable, I think.) Throughout the presentation, I handed some of the garments around the audience, allowing them the opportunity to look not only at the shape of the garments, but also at their construction.

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Standing in front of a loom on display at the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum

After I had finished talking about all of the pieces of the outfit, I re-dressed in the easy-to-put-on house apron and fielded further questions from the audience. Their enthusiasm proved to me what I already knew: that clothing is a uniquely accessible entry-point to thinking about history and material culture. Not only is clothing something that everyone understands, when we “step into the shoes” of someone from another era, we find ourselves several steps closer to imagining their lived experience. We get a chance to see what they needed to feel comfortable when working and beautiful when they looked in their mirrors.

 

 

 

*If you missed my presentation in Winooski, I will be presenting my talk again at the Richmond Free Library in Richmond, Vermont, at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, March 25th, and hopefully at other dates and locations soon as well!

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What’s better than a picture of someone in historical clothing? A picture with Maddie the puppy!

3 thoughts on “An Outfit’s Worth of History: Presenting My Mill Girl Wardrobe

  1. I read a lot of early 20th Century Young Adult books for girls. Many of the books feature mill girls in one way or the other. Often they are portrayed as plucky young girls forced to work to support ailing mothers and/or themselves. One of the things I have always liked about many of these books is the description of what our young heroines are wearing.

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